- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis thinks one of the primary reasons his team lost in the first round of the playoffs last season was a lack of toughness, the mental and intestinal variety, not fisticuffs.

Washington was ousted by Tampa Bay 4-2 in the best-of-7 series after winning the first two games in Florida by a combined margin of 9-3. When the Caps faced tough times and had some officiating calls go against them in the last four games, they did not fight hard enough to overcome, the owner maintained yesterday.

“When I look at it, I say, ‘Well, when the going got tough — the two bad calls in overtime, the bad call in Tampa, the triple overtime loss — we didn’t have that umph, that intestinal fortitude to fight through it,’” he said.

The tide turned in one game when goalie Olie Kolzig was called for an infraction that didn’t exist, and Tampa Bay won two other games in overtime on calls that even the league hierarchy questioned.

But there were other causes — Washington’s inability to control one particular Tampa Bay line, the Caps’ inexcusable lack of success on special teams, the failure of most of Washington’s offense to come through during the last four games. Leonsis did not deny any of that but kept coming back to leadership.

“I think we’ve done a reasonable job of bringing talent into the organization, now is the time to focus on the intangibles and try to get that right balance,” he said. “Frankly, we have to change the team or add to the team. I think we need to get younger in places and more passionate in places.”

Leonsis made it clear he was not singling out one player, such as team captain Steve Konowalchuk; he apparently was making a blanket judgment that the team as a whole didn’t have the fortitude to fight through setbacks. Was he looking for another Dale Hunter, the retired captain, a Cap for a dozen years?

“Boy, if I could get Dale back … yeah,” he responded. “Right now I would think our team could use a bit more leadership, a bit more ‘grunting’ through the hard times. That’s not to say players like Konowalchuk, [Brendan] Witt and Olie are not leaders, you just can never not have enough of them.”

He said ownership and management have been going “through the emotional rollercoaster of what happened and be critical of what you could have done better,” a process that is continuing. He said several areas that need help have been identified and being sought. But he said the help would come from draft acquisitions, not high-priced free agents.

“We will not be in the market” for high-end free agents, he said. “I have no idea what the league will look like a year from now but if there are players out there we can pick up for a year or two and they’re within reason and don’t throw your budget out of whack, [were] prepared to try to improve the team.”

In a related matter, Leonsis said he felt some of his comments after the Caps were eliminated from the playoffs April 20 were misconstrued when he made note that MCI Center failed to sell out for postseason games.

“I think our fans react to how hard the players play,” he said. “My comments in the spring when I said ‘the market had spoken’ were misconstrued. What I meant was, [the fans] didn’t believe in our team. It’s not the fans’ fault they didn’t come out, we made the playoffs and they just didn’t believe that this team could get past the first round.”

On fiscal matters, he repeated the assessment he first made Wednesday, that the NHL’s economic model was not working.

“If you ever want a view of that, the NBA just published its salary cap information and it’s [a cap of] $44 million. It’s well-known that the NBA has higher revenue than the NHL, they have 12 players to pay, we have 25 to pay. Yet in the NHL we probably have 10 teams (actually 13) over $44 million [and] we have some teams at $70 million, $80 million.

“The year I spent the least money was our best year so there isn’t a direct correlation between payroll and success. I’m still committed to making the right investments; these comments that we’re slashing payroll came from my saying we’re not going to sign any free agents.”

Leonsis refused to comment on reports that the Caps were trying to trade star right wing Jaromir Jagr but said he did not regret signing the Czech to a long-term contract potentially worth $88million if he plays through his option.

“I think he’s an asset and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet,” he said.

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